Monday, 26 October 2015

Austerity Education (Freedom Is Slavery)

Benjamin Franklin: An austere sort.
All around, the debates rage on.  Can you even call them debates?  Arguments, rows, skirmishes, battles.  All may be better monikers for what I read daily.  Little importance seems to be attached to conciliation, let alone synthesis, and the underlying causes for this clash of cultures remains unspoken, perhaps even unnoticed.  There is a distinctly austere flavour to the rhetoric.

Like those you know who thrive on misery and drama in their lives, educational thinkers and engaged practitioners seem to thrive on conflict for its own sake.  Maybe it sells books or earns you Twitter followers.  Maybe it makes you feel vindicated in the face of your hearltess and misguided leadership team.  If you're a leader, maybe it helps you feel your policies are validated. One thing's for sure, it doesn't lead anywhere nice.  There is an austerity of outcomes.

It's no good blaming Gove's legacy.  He only exploited what was already latent in the education community, what we began to accept the moment performativity became the yardstick of school improvement - namely that we are all in competition with each other. Teacher has turned against teacher for performance pay, school against school for parent choice, local authority against academy trust for real estate, and thinker against thinker for mastery over the pedagogical realm.  The latter's rank-and-file foot soldiers are battle-ready in every classroom to defend to the death their right to teach this way or that, poised to invade their neighbouring classrooms to impose their practice upon others.

No, it's no good blaming Gove.  We really only have ourselves to blame for this situation.  Sure, he exacerbated things. Granted, he was divisive.  True, his language was of the cheapest type of rhetoric.  But boy, did we lap it up.  By we, I mean everyone in the educational community, those who were insulted by and those who found solace in his assaults.  Frankly, if anyone believes any of it was for the betterment of teaching and learning, of schooling and education, they need to question their level of critical reflection.

Was there a dominant 'progressive' culture before Gove?  Perhaps.  Was education best served by reversing that imbalance by incentivising a dominant 'traditionalist' culture? No.  Did the policies serve an economic and political ideology?  Yes, yes, and yes again.

With school budgets set to shrink by up to 12% over the course of this parliament (BBC News), it is little wonder that a progressive culture finds itself out of favour with the authorities.  To explore, to try and to make errors, to experiment and to research are expensive, especially when they entail investing in technologies, in training, in staff and pupils.

Imagine Nicky Morgan saying this: "I believe in adapting education to a changing society, but we just can't afford it.  As a result, we will have to return to a more traditional curriculum and pedagogy, knowing that this will be damaging to the prospects of this young generation's future." Well, of course not.  If you believe in something, you fund it.  And if you can't fund it, you don't believe in it. That's politics, baby.  Politics for winners, in any case.

This may suit you.  Like me, you may have always looked on with deep scepticism at some of the measures brought into your school by an over-zealous leadership team.  Few teachers haven't.  Like me, you may have always felt more comfortable with chalk-and-talk than with cooperative learning.  Few teachers don't. Like me, you may resent being left to deal with the behavioural consequences of poor leadership.  Again, you are not alone.  Does this make you and me traditionalists and others progressives.  Like Hell it does.

Is education perfect? No.  Does it need reform? Yes. Should that reform be focused on improving schools for all teachers and students? Yes.  Should reform be based on research? Yes.  Should it abandon the lessons of the past? No.

If you agree, and I've met very few who don't, then by any definition of progressive, you are one.

To continue to be divided along the lines of trads vs progs is to continue to lose the argument for investment in schools. And if you work for a school, then to continue to be divided along these lines is to continue to lose the argument for investment in you.

Make no mistake that the reforms of the past six years, just like the six that came before, and the six before that, are not serving you.  What we are getting is not a traditionalist education system.  What we were on course for before was not a progressive one.  So what is it?

It is a marketised system in which your classroom will never again be yours, in which you are a resource, and like any other resource, must bring the most value for the least cost, with no say in what value means or what it looks like.

Your traditionalist practices may afford you some safety at the expense of a freedom to experiment that you neither wanted nor needed, but if just one of your colleagues wanted that freedom, then you have sacrificed it for your safety, and deserve neither.

Your progressive practices may feel undermined by new priorities and pressures, and you may rue a freedom you have lost, but if you blame traditionalists for that rather than realise that you have joined their ranks, then you never deserved yours either.

Austere? Perhaps, but in the words of Franklin Roosevelt: "In the truest sense, freedom can never be bestowed; it must be achieved."  Freedom for all teachers can only be achieved by all teachers.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Shifting Grades of Pay (So Sexy It Hurts)

I wrote here about teachers reclaiming their classrooms, and here about reclaiming their curriculum.  The following is an exploration of how we can bring these outcomes about.  It starts with reclaiming our narrative.

The number of education stories in  the media is staggering, and the competitive nature of the news market means content producers are trying to out-do each other to stay relevant. From #EducatingCardiff to #edubill tweet-alongs, from relentless promotion of new research to equally relentless assaults on the same, from airing the baseless pronouncements of those who should know better to those of politicians who crave the public's attention, from 10 things you need to know about a newly anointed leader, to 6 bits of advice the said leader will never read, the education press is hot, and that can only mean one thing.

Education is sexy. (Sir Michael will be pleased.)

Sir Michael Wilshaw: A gentleman in public and a Master in the classroom.
I don't blame you for thinking I'm a basket case.  It's cliche by now to say that teaching has never been more demanding. We all feel the pressure of this relentless media and political onslaught.  We're all desperately trying to make sense of whether or not technology can be a good tool for learning. We're all trying to navigate our way through pedagogical approaches that one day are touted as silver bullets and the next flouted like rabid hounds. And we're all driven to distraction by targets and progress measures the formulae for which has both mathematicians and everyone else completely puzzled.  Formulae it takes a politician to invent and a culture of fear to accept unquestionably. Formulae as reflective of student progress as your average Educating Cardiff comment thread is about human progress.

I'm still trying to work out whether academies are a good idea, and look at that! I'm in one.  I was just devising the best way to deliver this course based on years of experience, and would you believe it? It no longer exists.  Levels? What levels?  An AS? What's that? At least I'm safely in a good school, right? Coasting, you say? What does that mean?

Education reform is moving on apace, and something that needs that much fixing can only be very, very bad, right? Not necessarily.  If you think education is the proverbial whipping boy for all of our social justice ailments, think again.

Tough love: Spare the rod. Spoil the teacher.
I repeat: Education is sexy, albeit it a 50 Shades kind of sexy.  Whipping is involved, to be sure, but it's carried out with mutual consent, in a contracted sort of a way, for the pleasure of both parties.  If you don't enjoy it, you know the safety words.  Depending on circumstance, they vary from "stress-related illness" to the simpler "I quit".  More and more are choosing the "I quit" option, fewer and fewer are seeing the appeal of a dominant-submissive relationship with Nicky Morgan, and the result is a recruitment and retention crisis.

False Dichotomies

This consensus in education hasn't come about by chance, but by design.  It isn't a coincidence that in the face of the crisis cited above, the Honourable Nick Gibb, MP is often heard to utter the complete opposite.  Why! There's never been a better time to be a teacher!  The education reform movement, regardless of which government has been in power, has signed  teachers up to an inevitable decline in their working conditions, their pay and, underpinning it all, their professional status.

Progs v Trads: The Eternal Return of the Same
Argue all you like about pedagogy, behaviour and learning, about personal development, values and engagement, (and they are important) but our debates are all false dichotomies served for our consumption.  They feed our belief that there is a one-size-fits-all solution to the problems we face, that if we can find the right wording, that if we can just persuade those who disagree, that if people weren't just so plain stupid, that if the right government with the right mandate could just get into power, that if we could design and carry out the right research with the right effect size, we wouldn't face this onslaught anymore. Mr Grey would love us the way we want to be loved.

But education is not one beautiful, fragile, shackled body. Education is what each one of us does, and Mr Grey is playing us against each other for his attention, while he holds the whip hand.  Our arguments are as redundant as they are demeaning.  We are unwittingly begging for punishment by it, and then observe with fey looks on our faces as yet more decisions are made each day that, ultimately, impact on those we care for - our students as well as our families.

A Culture Of Fear

Education is messy.  There is no strategy.  There is only a toolkit.  There are no guarantees, only relatively safe bets.  No certainties, only trial and error.  We all get it wrong, and we are all dedicated to fixing it when we do.

And yet we have been sold on the myth that it is a controllable, measurable process, and that myth is what shackles us as professionals and makes us vulnerable.  It is what has allowed a market in consultancy and pre-packaged resources to arise, the ranks of supply agencies to swell with amazing teachers, and the wholesale introduction of unqualified teachers across schools.  Who better to replace us with, after all, than someone even more vulnerable?  How better to degrade us than to let us know our assets are actually an encumbrance?  How more effectively to reduce the wage bill than to introduce a free market race to the bottom for the services we provide?

The insidious thing about a culture of fear is the dependency it breeds and feeds upon.  Freedom at first seems like an unattainable ideal, and then a dreadful prospect.  What would we do if people stopped telling us what to do?  Who would protect us?  Mr Grey isn't perfect, but at least I don't have to Tinder.

Crisis? What crisis?: Mr Grey's favourite position.
The good news is that power-hungry Mr Grey has over-played his whip.  The relentless pressure he's been applying is threatening to undermine his entire edifice.  A little nudge at the right time, and he'll be caught with his trousers down, a cat o' nine tails raised and waving an unendearing semi to a half-empty room.

So, what's the nudge? And what happens after?

So Sexy It Hurts

The first rule of Flight Club seems to be that you do not talk about Flight Club.  This needs to change.

A Clean break?: Don't wash your hands of the whole profession.
The nudge, simply, is to open the doors to the red classrooms of pain, to make public what has been kept private.  Disown the stigma of mental health issues and let the world know the causes and consequences of teacher stress.  Disown the shame of under-performance and publish the stories of over-management.  Disown the fear of unemployment and embrace the opportunities of the teacher shortage. Flip the narrative. Embrace your sexiness and strike while the education press is hot.

What happens after is, as it should always have been, up to us.

Imagine schools rooted in their local communities and engaged with global issues, instead of ones rooted in global competitiveness and disjointed from their local context.

Imagine a profession that has space for traditionalists and progressives (whatever they are), for chalkboards and smartboards, for Maths and the Arts, for Science and Citizenship, for the trivium and trivia, for knowledge and skills.

Imagine an education system that has time for all these things and your well-being.

Imagine a sustainable model for education, one founded on trust in the professional judgement of its teachers.

Until then, join the refrain.

I'm too sexy for your contract, too sexy for your targets, too sexy for your INSET.
I'm too sexy for dichotomies, too sexy for league tables, too sexy for your PISA.
So sexy it hurts.



Monday, 5 October 2015

Fear and Loathing in Bas Vegas (Who disrupts the #Disruptors?)

I was somewhere around Barking, on the edge of the desert, when the adrenaline began to take hold. I remember saying something like: "How long do I have?" But that rotten conscience of mine hadn't arrived yet. Strange looks from besuited passers-by.  What would she say? "As your conscience I advise you to get there at top speed. It'll be a god-damn miracle if you get there before the robots get your job."

Back To The Future II: 2015 as imagined in 1985.
Inexplicable waves of hyper-tension. The sight of the lizards doesn't help. Armani suits, white sparkly dresses, stiletto heels covered in diamonds, outward projections of power. Garments woven from the finest cold hard cash would be less conspicuous. Before I know it, I am wearing a purple wristband. I have vague memories of other colours. A hierarchy of colours. I hope the purple is imperial. I self-funded to be here.

Incredible, I think to myself.  How did I get here?  I'm holding a piece of cardboard to my face and as I pivot I get a full-spectrum view of some natural formations somewhere far sunnier than London while a young woman reads me a script. All I can think is I'd rather be under that blue sky... Actually, anywhere else but experience the future of education Google-style. "This will make it possible to take the poorest kids anywhere in the world. Who needs field trips?" I want to vomit on G-Man's shoes but I haven't eaten yet. Next door, there's a robot tipped to take my job. Look professional. Exchange business cards.

Virgin on funny: Welcome to Fabulous Bas Vegas
Two days ago I was teaching in Basildon. These kids go to school in a shiny new building dropped from space into the middle of their estate.  A new school building, apparently, is exactly the ticket to get them engaged in learning - it makes you feel better that Mum's new boyfriend kicked you out the house this morning before you had any breakfast when you've got a shiny building to go to.  

No anxiety in Basildon. Not for me. I feel good there. I'm doing what I'm built to do. There's something honest and salt-of-the-earth about being sworn at by an angry tweenager. There's something ineffable about turning that into an opportunity to learn.

It's tiring too. It weakens you emotionally, being on your game all the time, finding the right level of wit to show your mettle without scaring him off. In hindsight, I think the reason I decided to go to #Disruptors was that my shoe got ripped by the door as it was pushed into me by said tween. I was weakened, and the sales pitch got to me.

"The Future of Education: Does the Current Model Make the Grade?"  Fuck no.  Not as long as I keep getting shoes ripped.  I'm in. Take me to the 21st Century. 

I find my conscience.  She'll keep me straight.  We head to the main hall, decked out like the neon orgasm of an art student high on the same shit Tracey Emin's ingesting.


Tracy Emin: Blinding
Disruptors: The Future of Education

The day proceeds like an extended episode of Horizon that fell into a puddle of Tomorrow's World and went to dry off any semblance of fact by airing on Channel 5.  

Session 1 - Education is bollocks, okay? Chief Guru Branson's evidence for the need to transform education is that he left school before he could legally incur debt in order to start a magazine.  Ergo, school is irrelevant, anti-creative, anti-entrepreneurial.  How old are you now, Branson?  Schools have changed.  Why haven't you grown up? Why haven't you come to terms with your elite start?  Hey! Why are you pulling the ladder up, Branson?  I'm not finished with you! He shouts down from his spacecraft: "Oh! And who needs French? They all speak English anyway." I shit you not.

Wisdom of the market: Quel encule!
Session 2 - Welcome Robot Overlords. They walk and talk. Like kids and lizards in sparkly shoes. Unlike teachers, they have fresh, unhaggard faces all year round. They can be updated with the newest apps so that their pedagogical practices will never be out of fashion, and they can be controlled from a tablet. Fuck you, NUT. Your days are numbered. I think. I was mostly tweeting so I may have missed the gist.

Behaviour Solved: If the friendly face doesn't do it, the laser eyes will.

Session 3 - Space. The final market. These are the voyages of the Virgin Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new markets, to seek out new life and sell it aspirations, to boldly grow where no shareholder has gone before.

Session 4 - Google. Creativity is more important than spelling. No, really. Look, here's a picture of me when I couldn't spell.  Wasn't I cute? Oh, and cardboard is the new field trip for the down-trodden. The lizard population is lapping this up. They flew from LA for this. I look to my conscience for guidance. She is simultaneously endorsing my avid criticism and tweeting her matter-of-fact observations. How does she do it?

Session 5 - Creativity is the new literacy. In this, the second age of modernity, reading and writing are a thing of the past (and the rich).  Who needs to read when you can have any book (in Google Books) read to you with the synthesised facsimile of your favourite posh voice?  (I hear David Cameron reading Animal Farm to me. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again. Jesus! Did I say that? Or just think it? Did they hear me?  I glance over at my conscience, but she seems oblivious - tweeting.) Who needs writing when you can dictate anything into a wrist appendage? Why stop there? Why not headphones that can interpret your brainwaves into the appropriate vocabulary and tone for your audience?  Mine at present are spewing Aaaaaaaaarweyopgluuuuuuuurrrrrrrphlum.

Creativity is the new something something: Write your own caption.


Session 6 - Virgin helped me start my business when I left school:  Not one of these disgustingly youthful show-ponies from the Virgin stable seem to know how to fix my shoe or prevent further on-the-job shoe ripping, let alone fix the (as-per-subtle-advertising) broken school system. Entrepreneurial, my arse.

Session 7 - The end of the Galactic dream: Sal Khan. The Sal Khan. He can't be here today because you're not that important.  He's in LA. The lizard couple in Armani and diamond shoes who flew in from LA don't even look a little miffed. They are resilient beasts. But he's on Skype, except he's not, because the connection means the entire episode looks like a cut scene from The Martian. The irony is lost on the lizard population.

Sal Khan: All the way from the stars.
Session 8 - The pub: My conscience takes me out for a pint and allows me to vent. She agrees with all my criticisms, though I suspect this is for therapeutic purposes.  

Session 10 - The disruption: My conscience sits between me and and a smiling stranger. He is rubbing cream into his hands. He offers it to her and she partakes, then offers it to me. Have I stumbled across some weird ritual? I succumb to peer pressure. I take some and reflect how far backwards mankind has come since the 70's. The debate starts and I find I am impaired by greasy hands. I can't tweet. Consternated, I look around for that sycophant of a conscience of mine but she's gone. She was a deep-cover Virgin agent all along. I knew it. Nothing of the debate is intelligible to me if it can't be quickly digested into 140-character snide comments. I've been disrupted.

Post Scriptum - Viva Bas Vegas

Strange memories on this nervous night in Bas Vegas. I'm sure LA in the late noughties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run . . . 

And this, I think, was their handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; they didn’t need that. Their energy would simply prevail. They had all the momentum; they were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .

But now, less than five years later, you can go up to the top floor of a Basildon Academy and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.